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118 min.
Release Date

Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky unfolds gradually like a best friend that takes time to know, whose quirks must be appreciated and experienced (and occasionally tolerated) to truly love. Transparent, one-note friends present no challenge, and though we need friends like that sometimes, we hold out for grand ones like this. Rather than merely skipping into lightheartedness as the title suggests, Leigh’s film makes an indomitable argument for optimism, even while considering some grave counterarguments. The irony is that cheerful British subject Poppy (Sally Hawkins) seems singular in her happiness, so much so that people scoff at her, perhaps because they’re not having half the fun she’s having. Poppy first appears on her bicycle, riding merrily across town smiling to herself, composer Gary Yershon’s bright clarinets serenading her journey. She parks her bike and locks it, does some shopping where she ineffectively attempts to make a frowning book store clerk smile, and then returns to find her transportation stolen. “Didn’t even get a chance to say goodbye,” she laughs to herself, more surprised than appalled.

Poppy sustains the kind of buoyancy few of us could muster, as she’s perpetually giggling and making silly jokes. Not like some idiot, mind you, but with the same innocent sophistication of which Sherwood Anderson writes. Being a teacher, she has to maintain that energy at work in her elementary school classroom. Cutting up tissue and paper bags, slopping paint all about, she makes bird masks with her students and flaps her arms. Imbued with Hawkins’ bright smile, Poppy seems like she could take off into the sky at any moment, that’s how light she is. She even participates in a trampoline group for exercise, where she bounces high, surely at home in that brief weightlessness between rising and falling.

But keeping it up at school, in the face of romantic loneliness and evident family troubles, we wonder how she does it, and thus realize her behavior bears a vein of tragedy. Sally Hawkins gives a career-making performance, wholly Oscar worthy, in that with voice, body language, and small mannerisms, she communicates utter happiness and strength with a simultaneous allusion to melancholy and weakness just under the surface. Had you never seen her in Cassandra’s Dream or Layer Cake, you might think Leigh simply found himself a jubilant Londoner to document. She’s also appeared in Leigh’s All or Nothing and Vera Drake, never reaching the tour-de-force level of performance she does here.

Maybe it’s my critical nature that leads me to believe Leigh’s narrative contains more than Poppy’s blithe mind-set toward life, but also the dangers she’s exposed to by way of her sunny idealism and confidence in the potential goodness of people. This dialectic occurs in scenes of progressively worrying circumstances, such as her handling of the angry student in her class, who she treats without punishment but rather expressive care. Or consider the poignant scene where during a late-night walk Poppy hears a repeated voice coming from a homeless street urchin repeating “D’ya know?” to himself, then to her. Most of us would pretend to hear nothing and keep walking. Poppy approaches him, goes along with his intrapersonal conversation, never showing fear, looking confidently into the man’s eyes. And then he just walks away. What might’ve happened and what does are two different occurrences entirely.

Throughout the film, the bikeless Poppy takes driving lessons from an instructor named Scott (Eddie Marsan), someone who should be easing unfamiliar motorists into safe driving habits, yet dogmatically insists upon side-seat road-rage. He shouts to uncomfortable extremes about Poppy’s heeled boots being “inappropriate” for driving, periodically dropping his slanted views on religion and such. You and I might pull over, walk home, and call Scott’s manager to get him some anger management. Poppy wouldn’t. She asks about his childhood and family to no avail. She returns each week, and at the end of the lesson laughs off his behavior. Except maybe she shouldn’t.

Leigh’s previous work has been fixed in less hopeful fare, and so scenes with the homeless man and car instructor play with our own apprehensions as those of us familiar with his more severe work, such as Naked (1993), expect something completely different from Poppy’s encounters. Maybe she’s so blindly optimistic, so void of fear and apprehension, that the cruelty found in Leigh’s numerous other comparatively downer films can’t affect her.

Involve yourself in Hawkins’ wonderful performance, perhaps the best by any actress in 2008, and you’ll reap the many rewards herein this film. Her smile and laughter are contagious. So for the most truthful reading of Happy-Go-Lucky, the film must be felt, not analyzed by scene deconstruction. In attempting to keep up with Poppy’s momentum, Leigh tests our resolve through her resilience. As she persists, so do we. When she returns to her ongoing euphoria after her sobering encounters, that she carries us along on her infectious, ever-supportive cloud remains Leigh’s supreme achievement as a storyteller. Not only does Leigh present the joyous life of someone who chooses to be happy, he weighs the risks of optimism versus pessimism and finds that optimism comes out on top.

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